Where do strategic (or “restoration” or “redevelopment”) interim pastors get the authority to change so much so fast in the churches they lead?
A church-health expert once told me that “all an interim pastor can do is to give a church a good slap in the face.” As one who has been doing interim pastoring for several years now I’m so glad this isn’t true! Frankly, I’m amazed at how much God has changed the three interim congregations I’ve served. I’ve given some thought to the question above and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
I don’t want to slap churches; I want to be used by God to change churches significantly for His glory. While I do believe that interim pastors have some ability to change organizational dysfunction through their own interventions, lasting change that honors God comes from the Spirit of God (John 15:5; Zechariah 4:6). If this is true (and it is), then the most important thing I can do is to pray. Seriously. Desperately. Comprehensively – which means – for every sermon and class of course, but also for every church member, every meeting, every encounter. I’ve come to believe that it’s the kind of prayer that takes hours, not moments, that moves God to transform churches. The battle is not ours, it’s the Lord’s (I Samuel 17:47). To the degree that I really believe that, to the same degree I will pray.
Tell the truth
All Bible-believing pastors are “about” change, of course. It’s the business we’re in. Many long-term pastors believe in introducing significant church change incrementally and that’s fine for them. Transitional or transformational interim pastors however, don’t have the luxury of having years to change things. The churches we are leading are sinking ships, dying patients, crumbling facades. We have to move fast. We are more like emergency room physicians – for whom bedside manner is not much of a concern – than family doctors. I believe in telling congregations the truth before they vote on us. They can take it and they’ll respect you for it. I explain what interim pastors like me do, tell some stories of our previous adventures and then challenge them to commit themselves and their churches to God, unequivocally. “Leave your guns at the city limits (like the Earp brothers in Tombstone), leave your swords at the door, lay aside your idols and put your church on the operating room table with a willingness for God to change it in any way that He wants to.” Most people who are truly God’s people know that this is the right thing to do and will respond well. Tell them the truth.
Most of us are kind of scary to most lay people, at least at first. If we have to walk in the door calling people to repentance for their gossip and disunity – and we must sometimes do this – we can be very scary. We can mitigate this by being physically small – ‘works for me but it might not work for you – and by being as warm as possible, loving kids, dogs, cats, goldfish, home cooking and especially, by listening. Listening is a wonderful gift which we can give to our church members liberally. It costs us in time, but that’s all. Everybody loves to be listened to, so start listening a lot, right away, before you even arrive on the scene. People will love you for it. I have the blessing of having a wife who is a better listener than I am. She more than doubles my listening power and greatly increases my “leadership coupons” (I’ve also heard these called “pastor points”). Listen to the people who you know you’re going to disagree with. Try to hear their hearts. What are they afraid of? How can I reassure them? Remember that in some cases, they’re not expecting you to agree with them, they just want to be heard.
When you begin changing things people are going to take some “whacks” at you. People are going to gossip about you. Some will say some tacky things in classes or meetings you’re leading. While many behaviors should be lovingly confronted by the interim pastor – especially if they represent patterns of behavior – other things should be simply covered over with love (I Peter 4:8). Pray for the wisdom to know when to confront and forgive and when to simply forgive. If you forgive liberally – and we all have the ability in Christ to do this – some of your strongest and most affectionate supporters at the end of your interim will be people who treated you disrespectfully at the beginning.
Get your hands dirty. We all know that we should “give ourselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer” like the Apostles in Acts 6:2-4, but sometimes we have to violate that a bit by shoveling snow, moving walls (with permission), pulling weeds, tarring roofs, etc. Most of the best people in your church are hard working people; make sure they know that you’re a hard working person too. The worst thing you can do is to come across like a dressed-up, professional technician – and yes, I’ve seen this. You are “messing with” what they consider to be their church. (Of course we all know that it’s really Jesus’ church, but it’s still their church more than it’s your church and you’d better let them know that you know this.)
Show up and be fun
Okay, maybe you’re like me – not much fun – but you can try anyway, while making fun of yourself for not being much fun. People will give you credit for trying. Attend the parties you’re invited to. Attend the soccer games, wrestling matches, concerts and whatever else you’re invited to. This is such a simple thing, but it means so much to people. Woody Allen said that “50% of success in life is just showing up.” He was right. Show up.
Everybody loves to hear their own name used…everybody. A few people I know are really good with names. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I have to work at it. When I meet a visitor at church I’ll not only repeat his/her name out loud, but after walking away, right it down as quickly as possible. We start every interim pastorate with visiting and getting to know as many people in the church as are willing to get together with us. We ask them twenty questions (literally) and hear their life stories. Most people love it. If people don’t want us in their homes, we try to meet them at restaurants. Very few people don’t want this attention. At my next assignment I’m going to carry a digital camera and take photos of family groups on every one of these visits. As soon as I get home, I’ll print the photos and try to get the right names written on the right people, dogs, cats – whoever ended up in the photo.
Move to the area
I know that many interim pastors live in a metro area and do a lot of driving to a succession of interim pastorates. I know that they do effective work in this way, but we believe that our work is a little more effective because we move, “lock, stock and barrel” to every community where we interim. We waste no time in learning the history and distinctives of the area. We often know more about the area (within a few months) than the natives who have lived there for decades. This is going to be hard for some of you to hear but we even believe in “cheering for the home team” as much as possible. After fifty years in Wisconsin, I cheered for Arizona teams while in Arizona (even the Cardinals!) and Minnesota teams while in Minnesota. (There are limits to this of course, such as when the Vikings play the Packers.) For the most part though, you will increase your ability to affect change if you will totally move to the area. And, by the way, I’m sure the author of I Corinthians 9:19-23 would recommend this.
Choose your battlegrounds
This is also called “choosing the hill you’re going to die on” and it’s oh-so-important for the interim pastor. There are serious problems in the churches we pastor which must be met head-on. These things affect the effectiveness of the church and thus, the glory of God. There are other things which we simply don’t like. Especially as interims, we have no business making issues out of things which are simply not “our style.” Maybe they call the communion table an “alter” and insist on having a pot-luck dinner on the last Sunday of every month. Maybe their music isn’t exactly our cup of tea.
Do these things really matter? I recently had an elder board ask me about my music style. My answer was that “my” music style was irrelevant. The church should be like Paul in I Corinthians 9 and adapt itself in its music to reach the people in its mission field. The pastor – interim or long-term – should adapt himself to fit the church which has adapted itself to reach its community. I can play my style of music at home, all I want.
Somebody said that “nobody ever died from an overdose of encouragement.” The churches we interim pastor are troubled and generally have many faults. They also are not without their strengths. Almost every church has at least some really fine people doing some really fine ministry for all the right reasons. Praise and encourage these people liberally. You will empower them and they, in turn, will empower you. At one of the churches we interimed we discovered a staff member (I’m withholding details to protect the guilty) with an extraordinarily good ministry. It came as a shock to learn that the former senior pastor hadn’t encouraged this brother for years. All it took was some praise and encouragement to see him take his ministry to a whole new level and I was rewarded with his support and cooperation.
I’m not sure if it’s because I (1) have the gift of faith, (2) have walked with God as long as I have, (3) am silly enough to believe the Bible, or (4) all of the above, but I find it pretty easy to walk into some pretty damaged churches with complete faith that God is willing and able to transform them into vibrant, joyful, effective ministries. In each church I’ve served I’ve had people ask me, in great pain, “Do you think our church is going to survive?” I answer that, “If some of you are willing to give it completely to God, it will not only survive, it will thrive.” If you can’t do this you probably shouldn’t be a strategic, transformational interim pastor. If you’re pretty sure that you can do this then you might be able to gain “restoration authority” and be a candidate for this intensely difficult but richly rewarding ministry.